VI Lenin and the influence of Kautsky

In the first of three talks given at the CPGB’s Communist University, historian Lars T Lih discussed the relationship between two great Marxists. This is an edited version of his speech dealing with the period 1894-1914

Picture the situation. It is Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s 50th birthday in April 1920. The Bolsheviks have been fighting the civil war and, although they are in a pretty desperate situation in the spring, they can see victory as pretty much assured, and they are celebrating the occasion with their great hero and great leader, Lenin. He rather reluctantly comes out onto the stage and says that he would like to read out a rather long quotation by Karl Kautsky from a 1902 work, ‘Slavs and revolution’. Lenin also inserted the same page-and-a-half-long quote into Leftwing communism: an infantile disorder.

He introduced it in this way: “I’d like to say a few words about the present position of the Bolshevik Party, and was led to these thoughts by a passage from a certain writer written by him 18 years ago in 1902. This writer is Karl Kautsky, who we have at present had to break away from and fight in an exceptionally sharp form [which is putting it rather politely!], but who earlier was one of the vozhdi, the leaders of the proletarian party in the fight against German opportunism, and with whom we once collaborated. There were no Bolsheviks back then [before the 1903 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party], but all future Bolsheviks who collaborated with him valued him highly.”

So, on this great occasion, Lenin tells the audience that the person they had been fighting and whom they had all been looking down upon really was a great guy. He read out the quotation which still thrilled him. That for me is significant. I wonder how shocked some of the people must have been.

A couple of weeks later the Second Congress of the Communist International met and Lenin did the same thing. He referred again to the same long quote in Leftwing communism and repeated his appreciation of Kautsky: “When he was a Marxist, how well he wrote!” I imagine a lot of the people in both audiences - those at his birthday and those present at the Second Congress - were surprised to hear anything like that.

After all, following 1914 you could read tremendous polemics against Kautsky, where Lenin seemed unable to think of enough bad names for him. But it is clear that Lenin still had a soft spot for him - in his heart and also in his thinking. People on the left have all grown up with the idea of the “renegade Kautsky” - indeed, I gather many actually think “renegade” is his first name, as they have never heard him called anything else! And there is a long list of other things we have learnt about him - ie, that he was a passive and mechanical determinist, not very revolutionary, Darwinist, and so on and so forth.

We are told that in 1914 Lenin managed to see through not only Kautsky, the person (which he clearly did), but also what he stood for. Then we are told that this led Lenin to finally settle accounts with Kautskyism root and branch, that there was a massive rethinking of Marxism. Kautsky was associated with the Second International and so that was also bad. That is how the Kautsky-Lenin relationship is generally thought of. And, of course, there are people on the other side of the political spectrum who have the same idea of Kautsky versus Lenin - except that they like Kautsky!

Well, lately there has been a sort of Kautsky revival going on. Mike Macnair’s book Revolutionary strategy is one example of it, and there are a lot of other articles I could cite. There is another huge book in the Historical Materialism series called Witness to permanent revolution, which has several hundred pages of Kautsky documents from the 1904-06 period, which I will quote from later on.

I am proud to be part of this little revival and I think I can describe myself as probably the most extreme member of it, as I have probably gone further than anyone else in saying that Lenin’s view on Kautsky was highly positive, never changed and continued to play an important role in all points of his career, including in the last decade. My little epigram for the relationship is this: ‘After 1914 Lenin hated Kautsky because he loved Kautsky’s books’. This is what I am going to try and convey.

One reason I am confident about what I am saying is that after publishing my book Lenin rediscovered, the reviews by some people on the left were complimentary, but a couple of them highlighted what they thought was a weak point: that is, I saw the Lenin-Kautsky relationship as closer than it was - although Lenin might have considered the relationship close before 1914, he did not realise the real issues involved, that he actually disagreed with Kautsky; but in 1914 the scales fell from his eyes.

That was a valid criticism, as I did not talk in the book about the later period. So I thought I would do some research on this. I compiled a rather odd little database which I refer to as ‘Kautsky as Marxist’. I went through Lenin’s works and pulled out all the references I could find about Kautsky’s writings up to 1909, when Road to power came out. Lenin considered this the cut-off point. Kautsky might not have become a full traitor until 1914, but after 1909 he is not so good.

The first surprise is that there is a lot of it. The second is the picture that arose from this, which was almost entirely positive and also had a wide range of issues and a lot of references to specific writings and so forth. I am still working out the whole picture and trying to get all the facts that came out of it.

But I am going to make a modest claim here: I am not giving you Lars Lih’s view of the Lenin-Kautsky relationship, I am giving you Lenin’s view of the Lenin-Kautsky relationship. He may be wrong, but this is what he thought. I have a summary here that I wrote out of that guide. It is my guide, but it is an attempt to paraphrase what Lenin says about Kautsky after 1914. This is the picture you would get of Kautsky, if you were listening to Lenin:

“Karl Kautsky was an outstanding Marxist who is the most authoritative theoretician in the Second International and teacher to a generation of Marxists. His popularisation of Das Kapital back in the 1890s has canonical status. He was one of the first to refute opportunism in detail, although personally he somewhat hesitated before launching his attack, and he continued to fight energetically against it, asserting even that a split would be necessary if opportunism ever became the official tendency of the German party. Marxists of Lenin’s generation learned a dialectical approach to tactics from him. Only vis-à-vis the state do we observe a tendency to restrict himself to general truths and evade a concrete discussion.

“Kautsky was also a reliable guide to the revolutionary developments of the early 20th century. His great work on the agrarian question is still valid. He correctly diagnosed the national problem, as opposed to Rosa Luxemburg. He insisted that western Europe was ripe for socialist revolution and foretold the connection between war and revolution.

“Kautsky had a special relation to Russia and to Bolshevism. On the one hand, he himself took great interest in Russian developments and endorsed the basic Bolshevik view of the 1905 revolution and the peasant strategy which emerged from it. On the other hand, the Russian revolutionary workers read him eagerly and his writings enjoyed greater influence in Russia than anywhere else. This enthusiastic interest in the latest word of European Marxism is one of the main reasons for Bolshevism’s later revolutionary prowess.”

That, as I say, is Lenin’s view of the Lenin-Kautsky relationship. Of course, I have left out the angry irony of ‘Look at him now!’, ‘Look at what happened!’ and how Kautsky had become a traitor or renegade in 1914 and so forth.

I want first to give the big picture and then proceed to the first two decades of their relationship (1894-1904 and 1904-14). I will talk about the third decade in the next sessions. The first decade I summarise under the title of ‘Lenin, the social democrat’ and the second under ‘Lenin, the Bolshevik’. ‘Lenin, the communist’ comes in the third decade. I have chosen these titles merely in order to identify the central theme of the particular decade - I am convinced of the continuity in Lenin’s thought and do not think he changed that much at all.

‘Lenin, the social democrat’ refers to his desire to initiate a social democratic party in Russia. ‘Lenin, the Bolshevik’ is so called as I regard Bolshevism as a Russian answer to a Russian question of how to defeat the tsar. You can call this classic Bolshevism, old Bolshevism or whatever, but that is what people meant when the word was invented. ‘Lenin, the communist’ obviously refers to the Lenin of 1917 and the socialist revolution.

By using this framework, the point I wanted to make about the Lenin-Kautsky relationship is the following: Kautsky’s influence is continuing, complex and central. It is complex because it has different facets that are more important at particular times - not just one or another issue. It is central because in the central concerns of each decade of Lenin’s life you will find Kautsky.

In the first decade, Kautsky was the authoritative spokesman of ‘Erfurtianism’ - the term I introduced in Lenin rediscovered. It is my word, referring to the Erfurt programme, for the image of the German party that inspired the Russians in this decade. In addition, it refers to Kautsky’s polemics against opportunism, such as his book against Bernstein.

It is true that at the start of the second decade - ie, when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split in 1904 - Kautsky sided with the Mensheviks. But this was just temporary. Actually on the more substantive issues and for most of the time from 1906 on, Kautsky was associated with the Bolsheviks, and he more or less endorsed the Bolshevik strategy. In fact both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks saw Kautsky as a sort of honorary Bolshevik. This seems to have been forgotten, but it does have to be said.

I would like to go into more detail on three points: Firstly the role of Kautsky as a mentor - the historical fact of the role that Kautsky played in the history of Russian social democracy. Secondly, Kautsky as an expounder of the logic of the party and the Russian underground (which is mainly what my book is about). And, thirdly, Kautsky’s support for the explicitly Bolshevik strategy of hegemony.

Kautsky as mentor

The best account of this is given by Lenin in State and revolution, which, as you know, is in many ways a polemic against Kautsky. But before he begins the polemic, Lenin gives the following generous and accurate account of Kautsky’s relationship to Bolshevism and the Russian movement (I should say, by the way, that if you read State and revolution you will find a great deal of praise even in this highly polemical pamphlet):

“Undoubtedly, an immeasurably larger number of Kautsky’s works have been translated into Russian than into any other language. It is not without justification that some German social democrats sometimes say jokingly that Kautsky is read more in Russia than in Germany. (We may say, in parentheses, that there is a deeper historical significance to this joke than those who made it first suspected. For the Russian workers, having manifested in 1905 an unusually strong and unprecedented demand for the best works of the best social democratic literature in the world, and having been supplied with editions and translations of these works in quantities unheard of in other countries, thereby transplanted, so to speak, with an accelerated tempo, the immense experience of a neighbouring, more advanced country into the almost virgin soil of our proletarian movement)”.

A somewhat similar comment can be found in Leftwing communism.

What Lenin is saying is that Kautsky was the main reference point of the Russian movement and Russian workers, and that this continued not only during the underground period, but almost throughout the 1920s - at least until 1929. For example, I have a long Bolshevik reading list for study and propaganda circles in the underground. This one is from 1908. The first thing to be said is that it is an extremely impressive reading list - if I had read all this stuff, then I would know a lot more than I do! I counted 23 works by Karl Kautsky, who dominates the list. Nobody else comes even close. There are only four articles by Lenin - none of the famous books such as What is to be done? or Two tactics.

But this continues for a long time. The classic Bolshevik textbook published in 1919, The ABC of communism, also has reading lists, from which you get the same picture - Kautsky is by far the leading author. Of Lenin’s pre-1909 works, the only ones that are included are those on agrarian development. Again, no trace of What is to be done? or Two tactics. So workers and Bolsheviks looking to educate and develop themselves are reading Kautsky! That is an historical fact.

Kautsky himself had more interest in Russia than any other non-Russian writer (ie, not Rosa Luxemburg, who was Russian in the sense that she grew up in the Russian empire). He gives specific support to Iskra and later to the Bolsheviks, and he told German and European readers about the heroic struggles going on in Russia and their immense significance. I would just like to quote from the article ‘Slavs and revolution’ from 1902, which was read out by Lenin at his 50th birthday. You can see why he was so inspired by it. This is what Kautsky said about the Russian workers:

“We are entering a new epoch of revolutionary struggle in Russia, a struggle that is developing on a much wider basis than a quarter of a century ago, but also one that in terms of the zeal of its fighters, in terms of the meanness and cruelty of the oppressors, and in terms of the heroism and devoted self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries is just as impressive as the Russian struggle of earlier periods, and involves more than physics in pitting force against force. The revolutionising of minds advances alongside the revolution of fists. The now awakening strata of the people are being seized by a passionate thirst for knowledge and are attempting to clarify for themselves their historical tasks, so that they might attempt to solve the most complex political problems, rising above the small daily struggle to the great historical goals that it serves.”

He then goes on to argue that in Marx’s day the Slavs were often seen as the force of reaction against the revolution, but perhaps now we can rather see them as the spark that sets off western socialism, which is becoming rather philistine.

Kautsky wrote a lot about Russia and it is always in this vein - ie, that in terms of their development the Russian workers are far above and beyond the English workers, etc.

The merger formula

I now want to discuss the logic of the party in Kautsky and Lenin. I refer to this as the ‘merger formula’ and it comes up a lot in my book because it is essential to this first decade - you do not read it much after that because the issues have basically been resolved.

The merger formula is this: social democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement. Lenin quotes this in the early 1890s and writes that this is how Kautsky sums up the essential message of the Communist manifesto - I do not think you can find higher praise than that. He also thought that it summed up the logic of German social democracy - the SPD. So the merger formula is the definition of ‘Erfurtianism’. It is seen as the prediction of the Communist manifesto, which, according to Lenin, is being confirmed before our eyes by the German SPD. So we have Kautsky formulating the link between the Communist manifesto and the party. Not only Lenin thought this - a whole generation of Marxists and activists of the 1890s did too.

What was this party logic? First of all, it is both a vanguard and a mass party - those are not opposed, because first of all bringing what Kautsky called the “good news” of socialism to the workers requires a vanguard who know about socialism, because the masses do not yet know about it. At the same time it requires a mass party, because you are trying to attract as many people as possible to this message and because the party is a large and open organisation that is going to argue for this message day and night. That is one aspect that results from this formula.

The second is what I call ‘campaignism’, which is the large array of jewels that the SPD came up with for getting the message across. This was very innovative stuff back then. I do not think we can appreciate all the things that - although familiar to us - were pioneered by the SPD: rallies, petition campaigns, a huge press, a large range of societies. These are all the things that the Soviet system based itself on and which all groups on the left use to some extent. This is due to the idea of merging. The workers will protest, but, if socialism is the real and final answer, then the only way to get socialism is to merge the two: the workers’ movement must adopt socialism as its goal.

Finally, the third implication of this is ‘political freedom’. That was the term used back then which is not used so much any more. It might be referred to today as ‘civil liberties’ perhaps, but this was the term that referred to the freedom of the press, freedom of association, strikes - ie, a basic array of organisational freedoms that allow this kind of party to exist. Particularly, of course, political freedom is needed in order to get the papers out, to hold rallies and to organise meetings in order to get the message across.

Most explicitly in his commentary on the Erfurt programme, Kautsky argues that anybody who does not want political freedom is an objective enemy of the proletariat - even if they are sincere in their desire to help the workers. Back then of course, a lot of socialists were either dubious on the question of political freedom or even hostile towards it, because they saw it as a sort of bourgeois-liberal toy. The best news for political freedom as a cause in the 19th century was the fact that the logic of Marxism meant arguing for political freedoms for the party.

That is what the merger formula meant. Let us now look at it from the point of view of what I call the ‘social democratic wannabes’ in the 1890s - these young activists either in Petersburg or in some isolated town in Russia. In illegal literature they read about this great party which is both popular and revolutionary and is run by the workers themselves. What an inspiring party! But, they asked, what does it mean for us today? We cannot do anything like that at all because we will be hauled off for speaking out in public.

So what could be done? First of all, they could adopt political freedom as their goal. This was not an obvious choice for revolutionaries in Russia because first of all they had to go through a long period of internal development in order to understand the importance of political freedom. The assassination of the tsar in 1881, for example, was a step forward towards this understanding. Whereas they previously rejected its significance, they now realised it was important.

This brings me to the next problem - is it possible to have something like political freedom under absolutism? Some people said that they were for political freedom, but that the only way to get it was the old terrorist way - ie, to throw bombs and force the government to do what they wanted because it was simply not possible to use newspapers and rallies, etc. That made a lot of sense. Others thought that the liberals would do it for them.

There was, however, another view held by people who had read Kautsky (in this sense Kautsky must be seen as the father, or godfather, of Russian social democracy). These people who had read Kautsky turned to the German party and started experimenting to see whether it was possible to carry out agitation and campaigns amongst the workers without getting arrested. The Russian word for this is konspiratsia, which does not mean ‘conspiracy’ (the word for that is zagovor). Konspiratsia has a specific meaning (or at least it did back in those days) of a set of operating rules which I call the fine art of not getting arrested. I did not use this phrase in Lenin rediscovered, but I now refer to this as the ‘konspiratsia underground’ - a new type of underground. Not one where you sit in a small room and plot to throw a bomb which will overthrow the tsar, but an underground that manages to keep its members safe from arrest. They form a national party with local roots, trying to get the word out to the workers à la SPD.

What is to be done? is therefore not Lenin saying, ‘Here is my great idea of a party - go and do likewise’. It was the summation and codification of what had been worked out by this underground. For that reason I would make the further argument that a lot, if not most, of what he is saying there became the common property of the underground - not just the Bolsheviks. For example, the term and actuality of ‘professional revolutionary’ were common to all parties - not at all a Bolshevik trick. The Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries and even the Liberals (to the extent that they were underground) had professional revolutionaries.

I therefore sum up Lenin’s slogan for this period as: ‘Let us build a party as much like the German party as possible under tsarist conditions. Then we can overthrow the tsar and build a party which is even more like the German one.’

Kautsky and Bolshevik strategy

I now wish to discuss Kautsky and the Bolshevik strategy that developed and became clear after the 1905 revolution.

Let us put it like this. You have a goal: political freedom. You have an institution in the form of the underground. But what about strategy? What sort of reading of class forces do you have that will achieve this political freedom? The Bolshevik strategy is one of hegemony.

Now the word ‘hegemony’ is a very famous one for a variety of reasons. What it meant back then was that the peasants were not only a discontented or destructive force, but by this time they were genuinely radical democrats whose interest it was to have a democratic, anti-tsarist revolution - partly because they wanted the land, but for other reasons too. They also needed leadership, so they had to choose between the main classes. One of these was the liberal bourgeoisie, who were anti-tsarist for their own reasons, and the other was the proletariat. The bourgeois liberals were already becoming counterrevolutionary because they were afraid of revolution, and they could more or less put up with what they got in 1905. Therefore the proletariat should aim to win, and has a very good chance of winning, class leadership over the peasants by promising them land and by being an uncompromising revolutionary force.

The way I summarise it is that the bourgeois revolution is too important to be left to the bourgeoisie - in fact the bourgeoisie is not going to carry out the bourgeois revolution. What follows from this is that the proletariat has a duty to lead the revolution and the mass of the people as a whole - ie, in the first instance the peasantry. Where did this hegemony strategy come from?

One common view is that Lenin invented it in 1905 when he realised that orthodox Marxism was insufficient, because it says that the bourgeoisie will lead the bourgeois revolution. So this view bases itself on Lenin repudiating German textbooks. But actually this is not so.

After 1905 Lenin wrote that the Bolsheviks had always been in favour of the hegemony scenario and it was the Mensheviks who were falling away from it. It is hard to locate just when the term ‘hegemony’ came about, but he was arguing that the Bolsheviks had always fought for it and that they still were. The idea goes back to Plekhanov in the 1880s, when he said that the Russian revolution can only succeed as a worker revolution. What he meant by revolution was a democratic and anti-tsarist revolution.

From the very beginning, Kautsky was again an influence, a conduit, for the hegemony strategy. The logic of it can be traced back to his writings in the 1890s, and it is based on three things. Firstly, that the bourgeoisie is unreliable. Marx and Engels realised this as soon as the ink was dry on the Communist manifesto in 1848. Another thing Kautsky says is that the bourgeoisie becomes weaker and feebler the further east we get, something which was picked up on by other writers. Then the idea of social democracy as the leader of the people - das Volk in German or narod in Russian. This means that the social democrats were not merely leading the workers, but were also the consistent champions of the wide masses of the non-proletarians and could also count on their support - the peasants above all, but the urban petty bourgeoisie too.

Finally, there is what I sometimes call the Kautsky hypothesis or theory. He says at one point that the social democrats are better defenders of democracy than the democrats, and what he means by that is that - in Germany especially - the democrats are to the left of the liberals, but they are starting to compromise, so the force that was really fighting for democracy was the workers’ party.

I read an American writer from this period who drew a comparison between the US and Germany. When something happened to the workers in the US then it would be ignored, but in Germany the party would kick off a big fuss about it in the Reichstag. This is the background to the hegemony strategy.

When applied to Russia, Kautsky specifically endorsed it and might have even helped to formulate it. Writing in February 1904, he says: “More than anywhere else, the proletariat in Russia today is the advocate of the vital interests of the whole nation - ie, the struggle against the government. That is to say, it is the proletariat which is the defender of national interests that the other classes are letting down. And particularly the peasantry is a source of possible support. Until the 1880s, Russian absolutism found its support in the peasantry. This no longer exists. The Russian peasant is ruined, starved and rebellious.”

By December 1905 Kautsky had taken the argument further by comparing the Russian revolution with the French revolution. He says that he expects “the disappearance of today’s great landed estates throughout the whole Russian kingdom and their transformation into peasant possessions. Next to tsarism, it is the large landed estates that will pay the bill of the revolution. We do not know what the result will be in terms of the mode of production, but we will say that the peasants will fight tooth and nail against anybody trying to restore the old aristocratic landed regime - even by foreign intervention.” This obviously says something not only about 1905, but also about 1917.

Then, in 1906, Kautsky specifically endorsed Bolshevik strategy - something that came out of a logic of Kautsky’s particular way of looking at social democracy (I will not say that this is something coming from social democracy in general - this is Kautsky individually - but he and Lenin were on the same wave length on this vital question).

To sum up, we have to understand that political freedom as a goal really was the central theme of Lenin’s first two decades - why it was important and how to get it. Political freedom also has a political logic - both in the ideal party that would be possible when political freedom was achieved and in the underground as a sort of ray of political freedom in the gloom of absolutism. Finally the strategy for winning political freedom was to get the peasants on board and to win leadership and hegemony over the peasants away from the liberals.

At each step we find Kautsky is a central influence and active mentor and educator. If I were speaking merely as a Russian historian I would have to say that Kautsky was a very important figure in Russian social democracy. He was a figure in Russian history.

The Kautsky-Lenin relationship is, for me, one of the most fascinating individual relationships in Lenin’s life. It is full of a passion and emotion that is hard to find elsewhere, but also it tells us about Lenin’s relationship to the Marxism of his day and to the Second International.